Friday, November 12, 2010

Angelique Kidjo and Friends Light up Carnegie Hall

Angelique and The SRC Singers

It has been quite a year for Benin's Angelique Kidjo.  Her new CD Oyo--a musical autobiography featuring cameos by Bono, John Legend and others--garnered sterling reviews upon its release in January.  She played the opening of the World Cup in Johannesburg in June.  She was named a Peace Ambassador for the African Union in July.  And, right here in her adoptive home of New York City, she sold out both Town Hall (in March), and as of last night, Carnegie Hall as well.  I don't know how many artists can say they packed both those august venues in a single year, but it has to be a short list.  And to do it at a time when the economy is tanking and concert ticket sales are off across the board is nothing short of miraculous.  Last night, Angelique demonstrated exactly why she can do all these things.  She is quite simply one of the most talented, charismatic and irresistibly moving performers of our time.

To be sure, it did not hurt that Angelique invited along Youssou N'Dour, Omara Portuando, and Dianne Reeves to share this moment of triumph with her.  But from the moment she took the stage surrounded by The SRC Singers, holding forth a capella without microphones, it was apparent that this crowd belonged to the diva of Benin.  Angelique assembled a classy band for the occasion, featuring, among others, Alex Cuadrado on double bass, Dominic Kanza and the amazing Romero Lubambo of Brazil both on guitars, Thierry Vaton on acoustic piano, loads of percussion and a terrific brass section.  They kicked of the jams early on with the ebullient "Kelele," and then Angelique ushered 80-year-old Omara Portuando of Cuba to the stage.  This past summer, visa complications scuttled Omara's headlining show at Celebrate Brooklyn, so she was a welcome sight and received a raucous greeting.  And let's not forget, Omara famously appeared on this very stage once before in the legendary Buena Vista Social Club debut back in 1998. History was in the air.

Omara Portuando

After a sparking duo with Angelique, Omara held forth on her own with a masterful read of "Guantanamera."  Incidentally, while this might be one of the most hackneyed songs in the entire Latin music repertoire, it was made brilliantly new twice in New York this week.  Tuesday's AfroCubism concert at Town Hall also included an inspired rendition of the old warhorse with Eliades Ochoa holding the center and  Toumani Diabate (kora) and Lansana Diabate (balafon) embellishing with lavish virtuosity.  Eliades and Omara are among the last living Buena Vista stars, so this was a rich week of classic Cuban nostalgia in NYC.

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique next underscored her omnivorous musicality by juxtaposing a sultry piano jazz ballad with a pumped-up take on James Brown's "Cold Sweat."  Then it was time to bring Youssou N'Dour to the stage for a soulful duo performance of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

Youssou and Angelique.  Redemption!

At this point, Angelique showed true class in her choice of repertoire for the evening.  She brought a cellist to the stage and left Youssou, the cellist and the double bass to reprieve the luminous song "Xale (Our Young People)," from Youssou's landmark 1990 album Set.  She then joined Youssou and kept the nostalgia rolling with a bracing version of "Set (Clean)," still one of Youssou's most enduring songs and a reliable crowd-pleaser that closed the first half.

Angelique and Youssou get "Set"
In the second half, Angelique invoked the theme of this concert--The Sound of the Drum--with some sharp meditations on slavery and its impact on history and culture.  She opened with her trademark cover of "Malaika," still spine-tingling after all these years, and then moved into "Bahia," with Afro-Brazilian drumming that played nicely into her theme.  Angelique explained that when she was nine-years-old and saw a photo of Jimi Hendrix with an afro, she started asking questions, and her older brother filled her in on what it meant to be "African American."  With the line, "I knew about slavery thanks to Mr. Jimi Hendrix," Angelique launched into her cover of "Voodoo Child."  Given the Benin-Vodun connection, this choice has always seemed especially apt, and although Angelique's uptown Carnegie Hall ensemble couldn't quite give the music the oomph and edge that makes her recording of the song so powerful, the moment certainly served its purpose.

Angelique feeling the spirit
The "drum" was as much a metaphor as a musical focus in this concert, and Angelique noted that it was voices and movements that preserved memories of Africa in the US, where African drumming among was routinely banned during the era of slavery.  This observation served as Angelique's introduction to Dianne Reeves, who delivered one of the most moving moments of the night singing the old spiritual "I'm On My Way" with no microphone and the audience clapping and swaying along in support.  Dianne sparked up the band and channeled the spirit of Bessie Smith, and then Angelique joined her for a transcendent Aretha moment with "Baby I Love You."  "Don't fool yourself," quipped Angelique, "We are all Africans."  The set revved on with Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up," and Angelique's boisterous "Mama Africa," which she dedicated to her late father, and used as an occasion to speak up in favor of hope and optimism in the face of dark times.   Omara and Youssou returned to the stage and the show reached its musical peak.

Dianne Reeves, Youssou N'Dour, Omara Portuando, Angelique Kidjo

Throughout the night, Angelique fans wondered whether she would actually attempt her signature concert finale touch of inviting scores of audience members to join her on stage.  Perhaps Carnegie Hall was just too stuffy a venue for such a populist stunt.  But this was Angelique's night, and she kept to her protocol, filling the enormous stage with dancers and revelers for a lengthy blowout on her singalong standby "Tumba."  The entire hall, right up to the top tiers of the balcony, was on its feet and moving as one.  The force of nature that is Angelique Kidjo had brought worlds together and made everyone feel that whatever nightmares this world serves up, great things are still possible...with love! This was one for the history books.  And there's still more than a month left in Angelique's remarkable year...

Review and photos by Banning Eyre

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